Monday, July 02, 2012

Blogito Ergo Sum..

Roughly translated, "I blog, therefore I am". Or am I? Exploring the recent newsworthy notion that we are not all that 'special', and how this relates to the unique narcissism of the information age.

My goodness, it's July already.

As expected, last month's commencement season was not without its share of surprises. My last post, which was in part about school district policies for participation in these activities, was still in the completion stages when David McCullough Jr., a teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, stepped to the podium at that school's commencement ceremony. 

Mr. McCullough, one of 5 children of the historian and writer David McCullough, raised numerous eyebrows, though not as many hackles as anticipated, with a humorous, yet impassioned speech that made the same point several times to the Wellesley Class of 2012:

You are not special.

While the initial context of this statement might seem like outright blasphemy to those of us Pittsburgh area neo-boomers who were raised on Mister Rogers, the focus of Mr. McCullough's remarks (and I really recommend reading the whole thing) seemed to be on those who took this concept and ran with it like crazy - think Fred Rogers on steroids. "Here comes Mr. McFeeley with a very special delivery".  For example - 
If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. 
We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s “So what does this get me?”  
Credit: Emmanuel Chaunu
Mr. McCullough's observations point to an increasingly disturbing trend that I've seen not only in our society, but in myself as well. We're often content with doing things just enough to make it look good, or worse, seem more concerned with how something is perceived instead of how it really is. 

Controlling the message is often more important than solving the problem. How things work (or don't) in the real world is often secondary to how it will be perceived in the virtual representation of those involved, be it a blog, social media, or another type of media presence. Another contributing factor to the confusion is how much of the gory details can be compressed and/or excised to fit within the 140-character limit of a tweet. 

I don't feel it appropriate to let everyone know where I am, or what I am doing or thinking all the time. I have a Twitter account, but its use is infrequent. I won't go anywhere near Foursquare, and haven't even ventured a look at Pinterest. 

I am fairly active on Facebook. I use it to stay connected with friends and family, and share things I find or have sent to me by others. 

My wife sees these things, adapts those that she finds useful to her specific needs, but largely dismisses the nature of these changes in our society and culture as being too fast and superficial for anyone's own good. As someone who has embraced these capabilities, and the information and communication that is instantaneously available as a result, this sometimes puts us at loggerheads over the amount of time spent at the laptop, or looking at the smartphone.

She's got a point. In deference to her, this is one reason that I don't post as much as I used to. I'm too dedicated to being comprehensive, to not just gloss over a topic, or liberally populate my posts with references to other people's work.

Interfacing with the virtual world is merely a tool for information gathering and connecting us together. It does not replace genuine accomplishment, true understanding of the viewpoints and feelings of others, or the inner peace and joy that one can find in the arms of someone they love. It does not replace satisfaction with the essential joys or needs of life - no matter what some researcher at Harvard has to say about it. 

I am a news junkie, have been since long before there was an Internet. I'm interested in what is going on around me, and how it relates to the challenges of daily living. Combined with my radio hobby, this has provided me with both a career and avocation, along with a skill set that can be useful in certain situations. 

I've been following the multiple large and destructive wildfires burning in various areas across Colorado. This is perhaps one of the greatest contrasts between here and there, that being the sheer scope of the disaster and the property loss involved. The total area burned in just one of these fires equates to nearly 20 percent of the land area of Allegheny County. Never mind comprehending it - how do you deal with it?

This is a mental exercise at the core of my profession, which at times occupies a few too many of my remaining neurons to suit some people. 

Leslie and I recently watched the 1959 film The Diary of Anne FrankI thought about what may have motivated Miss Frank to so diligently write of the experience of living in hiding, and of her own changes as a human being, with the presumed intent of the writer for no one else to ever see it.

Considering the volumes of words that have been written about the Holocaust, the impact of this one small volume speaks much to the power of a singular voice, one powerful experience, to alter our perception of history forever. Apply this concept to today's millions who now leave their electronic footprints, images, and opinions for all to see in the form of social media, blogs, and other online fodder, and it's easy to see the potential for lots of diamonds in all that virtual "rough".

Anne Frank was special

Numerous other writers, scholars, and philosophers across history have documented their observations in a similar manner. One contemporary example isEric Hoffer. "The Longshoreman Philospher" was a voracious reader, and also a habitual note-writer. Hoffer's personal, daily writings were undertaken with a notebook that Hoffer reportedly carried most of his waking hours.

These volumes numbered over 130 when Hoffer died in 1983 - they are currently archived at Stanford University, and have been largely unexamined. Hoffer, who was self-taught and did most of his reading and studying at public libraries, did what many other informal learners do to keep track of what they find out, or what they think about. One wonders how Hoffer would leverage today's Internet and library resources to accomplish a similar end.

Eric Hoffer was special.

As one blog pointed out rather well, these types of "learner's journals" can be invaluable even in the electronic age. Data storage methods of the recent past seem to have gone the way of the 8-Track player:
If you had an early TRS-80 (computer) from Radio Shack, and stored all your journal entries on its cassette drive you’d be hard pressed to access any of it now just 25 years later.
Indeed - a lot of my files from the 80's and 90's are on 3 1/2-inch "floppy" disks. Those drives are hard to come by nowadays. I have lots of stuff on paper that is admittedly more accessible to me. This includes several volumes of notes on graph paper - the little squares facilitate both page organization and doodling.

With the advent of the Internet, the ability to store and retrieve data "in the cloud" has made it easier to access and reference this kind of collective work without the risk of loss due to fire or other physical disaster. Nearly 6 years of blog posts are easily referenced - including one from last year that paradoxically extols the virtues of real books versus the electronic variety.

If the weblog is for me the repository for most of my recent writing, then Facebook serves as my learner's journal. At least for now.

A line from the Mister Rogers remix keeps popping up in my head - 
Imagine every person you meet is different                                                  
from every other person in the world
You got it right there, Fred. The discovery of the person within is just as important. 

As the second half of 2012 begins, I'm trying to focus on improving those tangible, precious things that transcend this virtual representation of the same.

There are relationships to nurture, to try and make the most of every day with those around me. To give these people the full measure of my attention when I'm with them. 

There are books to read, ones that smell of dust and decaying paper - some are those trade paperbacks that fit so well into my hand. 

There are tasks to complete, many related to the enhancement of living space, the removal of clutter, and other essential tasks that have too often been pushed around by procrastination. As an old classmate said once, this can be fun - just wait and see.

Enough fun for now. It's time to get organized, and for me this means lists of tasks, steps, and plans, all on paper, not in a smartphone. There are still plenty of graph paper notebooks laying around to get this process off the ground.

I guess this is a Declaration of Independence of sorts. Not that I was dependent, just a little too distracted.  

Siri, initiate self-destruct sequence. Just kidding...

Have a great Independence Day holiday.

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